University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Senate

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March 9, 1998


Committee on Equal Opportunity
(Final - Action)


The attached "Chief Illiniwek History" time-line illustrates that the controversy about the Chief is at least ten years old. For over seventy years, University of Illinois students, faculty, and alumni considered the Chief an appropriate symbol for our great University. When the Chief danced at athletic events students, faculty, and alumni thought they were honoring the Native Americans who once lived here. The Chief is revered by some alumni because he reminds them of the good times they had during their college years. Others maintain that students at the University learn about Native Americans from the Chief.

More recently, the University community has gradually come to realize that the image and performance of the Chief raise serious concerns. It is now clear that the Chief's costume and dance are not authentic. Native Americans tell us that Chief Illiniwek is a stereotyped image. In 1995 Joseph Gone, a Native American of the Gros Ventre tribe and graduate student in psychology wrote: "The Illini were Woodlands people--not Plains people--and as a result evidenced an entirely different material culture than the Lakota people whose clothing the current Chief dons. The Chief's dance was reportedly derived from a Lakota ritual known as the Devil's Dance and taught to Lester Leutwiler by Sioux people in Colorado as part of a scouting project."

The University community is now aware that the caricature and impersonation of a Native American as the mascot of UIUC is a form of racial stereotyping. Charlene Teters, a former graduate student in the School of Art and Design and member of the Spokane tribe, has told us how offensive the symbol of the Chief is to Native Americans. In October 1990 she spoke to the Board of Trustees: "You cannot ignore the religious significance of the symbol that you use in your halftime display. Native people's clans and Nations are rich with ceremony. Many of our ceremonies include dress and facial paint. The eagle feather has long been an important part [of those ceremonies], earned through bravery, self-sacrifice and acts of generosity to the people....You are using a religious symbol to excite the fans. If you used other religions' symbols in the same way you would be quickly set straight."

In response to Ms. Teters and others, committees and persons within the University began to examine the Chief's appropriateness. In October 1994 the Chancellor's Task Force on Inclusivity reported to Chancellor Michael Aiken, the Campus Planning Coordinating Committee, and the Council of Deans on the Chief in their document, "Building a More Inclusive Community." The first of their twelve recommendations was to retire the Chief. Their justification was as follows:

'The Chief' as a symbol of the university undermines attempts at inclusiveness and calls the University's sincerity on this matter into question. The workgroup has met with representatives from the Native American Indian Community, who have presented us with painful examples of the ways in which 'the Chief' affects the climate at UIUC and has led to intolerant speech and behavior. We are convinced that use of human and symbolic representations of Chief Illiniwek is harmful and a serious detriment to the campus's creating an inclusive community. Not only is the use of 'the Chief' objectionable to many Native American Indian students, but such use has become a focus of division and escalating tension with the campus community.

Soon after this report was made public, psychologist Dennis Tibbetts, Ph.D., whose tribal affiliation is with the Minnesota Chippewa/White Earth Reservation and Wyoming Shoshone/Wind River Reservation, and who, at the time, held positions as Assistant Dean of Students and Clinical Counselor in the Counseling Center at UIUC, along with others filed a discrimination complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education. He documented the sequence of events behind the attempt to resolve the alleged discrimination and wrote the following:

As an educator I find it inconceivable for reasonable university officials to expect Native Americans to feel welcomed and included into a campus community that uses their culture as a mascot or licensed trade mark to serve as a University logo. Furthermore, it is not reasonable to expect Native people who witness a non-Native person with face paint, in ceremonial regalia, dancing for people at a sporting event, to believe their culture is being respected and honored. The use of the title 'Chief' for this burlesque is demeaning to the present day men and women who are executives of tribes and hold the title of tribal chief. Chief Illiniwek's performance coupled with the chief logo creates an atmosphere that unfairly places Native people into a position where they are not treated as modern day people who have a viable culture, but people of the past who entertain at sporting events and serve as logos for everything from letterhead to jackets.

Although the Office for Civil Rights concluded that the evidence was insufficient to establish a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance, the OCR did ask the University to respond positively to the concerns of Native Americans and others who find the Chief offensive: "OCR encourages the University to take proactive steps to respond to the concerns of all members of the University community and prevent the Chief Illiniwek controversy from leading to a hostile environment that impairs the educational opportunities available to Native Americans on campus."

State officials were concerned about the issue of the Chief. When State Representative Rick Winkel proposed a bill guaranteeing Chief Illiniwek as the symbol of UIUC, Governor Edgar vetoed that bill. The Governor stated that "his [the Chief's] continued presence should be determined on the campus--and not in the capitol."

Some proactive steps were taken. Jay Rosentein produced the videotape In Whose Honor?, which features testimony by Charlene Teters who believes that the Chief as a mascot is detrimental to Native Americans and the University and a response by Susan Gravenhorst, Chair of the Board of Trustees, who believes that the Chief is meaningful as well as a "revered symbol." In Whose Honor? was aired on national television on July 15, 1997. On October 10, 1997 Teters was interviewed by Peter Jennings on ABC News and designated as the Person of the Week. Chief Illiniwek is now both a national issue and a national embarrassment to the University. On July 16, 1997 a prominent Alumnus, Morton Winston, Ph.D., Chair of the Board of Amnesty International USA wrote to Ms. Gravenhorst:

This is not a trivial issue, but really represents a kind of human rights violation. Much of the interethnic conflict in the world results from the failure of some cultural groups to honor and respect the right of different, usually minority, groups to preserve and protect their distinctive cultural heritage and traditions....While the First Amendment gives UIUC the right to use these symbols [dancing, chanting, face-painting wearing eagle feathers] in a way that dishonors and debases them, it is shameful and wrong for UIUC to exercise this right in this way, since doing so undermines the right of Native Americans to their cultural autonomy, their right to preserve the meanings of cultural symbols which they hold sacred. ...So it is left to the private judgment of individuals and to the policies of private institutions as to when particular forms of expression are or are not appropriate. [I believe you should]...Show some moral leadership so that perhaps the professional sports teams that also dishonor American Indians by debasing their cultural symbols will one day follow suit. But above all stop pretending that keeping "Chief Illiniwek" alive is somehow "honoring" the Native Americans who once roamed the plains where the University of Illinois now stands. In short, "Do the right thing--Get Rid of the Chief."

We now understand that what others may view as harmless pageantry, American Indian people experience as no less than the mockery of their cultures. This is perpetuated not only on the athletic field, but through the media, by the use of Native Indian sacred objects, and by logos as representations of Native Indians. This objectification and portrayal of American Indians distorts historical and contemporary perceptions about Indian people. True respect and honoring of others is based on acknowledging the legitimacy of world views that differ from our own. We cannot decide for other people what is offensive and hurtful to them, nor can we mandate that they accept our good intentions.


To use Chief Illiniwek as a mascot of this campus denies Native Americans the right to define themselves, and it perpetuates hurtful racial stereotypes. Volumes of testimony attest to the serious consequences of this, particularly on Native American children.

The Senate Equal Opportunity Committee believes that it is time for the UIUC Student-Faculty Senate to take a stand on the issue of the Chief. We now bring the following resolution to the Senate for action. It is appropriate for the Equal Opportunity Committee to bring this resolution to you because our Committee is charged by the Bylaws of the Senate to "Evaluate continually the equal opportunity posture of the campus and the University as a whole with regard to enunciated principles and to action." We have concluded that the use of a Native Indian as the symbol and mascot of UIUC is in violation of equal opportunity in so far as Chief Illiniwek is a denigrating symbol which discriminates against Native Americans. Furthermore, we hold that it is unconscionable for this institution, through its use of a Native American as its mascot, to stereotype an ethnic group and thereby deny that group the right to define themselves. The Committee therefore urges the University to retire the Chief and to begin a search to identify a new symbol which better represents the spirit and accomplishments of our University as we enter the 21st century.


Be it resolved that the University Administration and Board of Trustees retire Chief Illiniwek immediately and discontinue licensing Native American Indian symbols as representations of the University.


To provide additional information pertinent to the consideration of this resolution, we have asked Ms. Charlene Teters, an alumna of UIUC, Mr. William Winneshiek, an undergraduate student at UIUC, and Professor Brenda Farnell of the Department of Anthropology, UIUC, to make brief statements.

(A Chief Illiniwek History timeline may be found in Appendix A and a letter from faculty in the Department of Anthropology to the University Board of Trustees may be found in Appendix B.)

Senate Committee on Equal Opportunity
Heidi Von Gunden, Chair
Benjamin Halperin
Herman Krier
Betsy Kruger
Rajesh Shah
Cynthia Williams